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Food culture

Pasticceria Castelnuovo: Where the Cultural Heritage of Italy Hangs Above Brioche and Bignè

“Everything at Castelnuovo narrates a balanced presence of tradition and innovation.” 

One of my earliest memories is linked to afternoon strolls with my grandmother, nonna Maria, the most stylish Sicilian seamstress you could imagine. Still today, when I return to my hometown Turin, I call her to get merenda and she waits for me around the corner, with her impeccable hairstyle, her discreet elegance placed in one of her navy blue coats. “Andiamo” she says while she walks already one step ahead of me.

The ritual related to the rare pleasure of going out to a pastry shop is something precious. I have put this ritual into practice in every city I have ever lived as an act that keeps me grounded. It is also a good excuse to walk around a new city and to find one’s way around, after all, each individual’s small habits and rituals define one’s meaning. Therefore, before moving to Milan, I did my research and stumbled across several mainstream addresses until my friend and photographer Lucia Romanello, who took this article’s beautiful pictures, told me about Pasticceria Castelnuovo

This astonishing pastry shop is located in Lorenteggio, a former working-class neighborhood with elegant buildings and public housing. A crowded area where anyone can breathe 20th century Italian culture. Founded in 1945 in a small village close to lake Como by Enrico Castelnuovo, a WWII veteran, Pasticceria Castelnuovo transferred its business to Milan. Still today, Enrico’s family runs this iconic address whose fame brings it to a neighborhood’s reference point: the status of Milanese excellence, awarded and recognised as a “Historical Shop” by the Lombardy region.

Just like the most perfect cake, this place’s charm reveals itself layer by layer: at first glance, my eye immediately falls on the glass counter with the glossy pastries, the soft brioches and the bignes, the colorful tartelettes with fruits, the dolci da passeggio – sweets to be enjoyed during strolls – such as cannolis, babas and cookies. Just like a Camus description, my eyes go deeper to the next layer and dive into the cake corner; I suddenly feel like I’m living in one of those Ferzan Ozpetek colorful and joyful “Loose Cannons” scenes. Here you find the softest ricotta and cinnamon cake, the Vulcano cake with its double layers of cocoa sponges and then the signature cake that testifies to the importance of this unique address: the Enrico cake, a variation of the classic pear and chocolate cake with extra dark chocolate and Williams pears that, according to the Castelnuovo family, must be enjoyed hot. Everything at Castelnuovo narrates a balanced presence of tradition and innovation. 

And there it is, the next layer, the deepest one at Castelnuovo: culture. The scrapbook is hanging on the pastry shop walls like a photo album, and you no longer feel the difference between family and those who are the guests because it’s all the same, it’s history and memories. You find family photos, awards, and old articles that testify to the history of Lorenteggio in the 1970s, home of young artists who would have later become nationally acclaimed figures. One of the regulars at Pasticceria Castelnuovo was Lucio Battisti, whose fame was so relevant that, according to The New York Times, “he was sometimes compared to Bob Dylan, less for the political content of his songs than for the way they defined an era”. Not surprisingly, one of the most iconic cakes at Pasticceria Castelnuovo is Fiordipesco – Peach Blossom – whose name is related to one of Battisti’s most relevant hits, Fiori di Pesco. Written by Battisti and the songwriter Mogol more than 50 years ago,  Fiori di Pesco still is one of Italy’s most representative songs that fits any experience related to a young lost love in the same way the Fiordipesco cake narrates a timeless feeling of pleasure found in surprising tiny pieces of fruits inside a peach cream, and its sugar crust preserves this precious instant of pleasure.

Beside Lucio Battisti, Pasticceria Castelnuovo was also a reference for singers such as Tony Dallara and also for the greatest cabaret comedians of the late 20th Century, such as Renato Pozzetto and Diego Abatantuono. Still today, all the great artists that passed by Pasticceria Castelnuovo hang on its walls and tell the story of a beautiful stage for good taste and conviviality.

I wonder if sooner or later nonna Maria will be able to come and see me for one of our merende in Milan. I am sure I would have to bring her to Pasticceria Castelnuovo without even telling her why she has to experience it. After all, I can still picture Battisti’s vinyls at nonna’s house, as I can picture him having breakfast at Pasticceria Castelnuovo to start the day in the best possible way.

Photo by Lucia Romanello